A political and legal brawl has broken out in France after the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was placed under investigation for "abusing" the mental weakness of one of the world's richest women.
Supporters and friends of Mr Sarkozy attacked the decision by an independent investigating magistrate as a "dishonourable" and politically motivated "persecution".
A magistrates' union in turn threatened to sue senior centre-right politicians for launching "illegal" and "abject" attacks on the independence of the justice system.
Judge Jean-Michel Gentil, based in Bordeaux, has produced what French newspapers described as a "political earthquake" and a "thunderbolt".
He placed Mr Sarkozy (58) under formal investigation for the alleged "abuse" of the mental frailty of Liliane Bettencourt (90) by badgering the L'Oreal heiress for campaign funds during his successful presidential run in 2007.
In other words, the judge accused the former president not of illegal campaign financing but of taking advantage of the frail mental state of an elderly billionaire.
Mr Sarkozy's supporters were indignant that their hero – nominally retired from politics after his defeat last spring – should face such a serious and humiliating accusation.
If found guilty, Mr Sarkozy could face up to three years in jail and a five-year ban from public life. Henri Guaino, Mr Sarkozy's former speech-writer and now a centre-right MP, said the judge had "dishonoured" the former president as well as the country and its justice system.
The judge's surname means 'nice', but he has a reputation for toughness bordering on severity.
Patrick Balkany, the mayor of Levallois-Perret near Paris, told French radio the ruling was "politically driven" and intended to distract attention from the recent resignation of the Socialist budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, after he was accused of tax evasion.
A medical study concluded last year that Ms Betancourt had been suffering from a form of Alzheimer's disease since December 2006.
Nine other people have already been placed under investigation by Judge Gentil in relation to the case.
The judge is expected to wrap up his investigation in the next few weeks and recommend that most of these suspects should be sent for trial. (© Independent News Service)